Sometimes shifting your perspective shifts everything. That’s a lesson I learn again and again on the road.
After more than a year away, in Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Laos, the USA, and along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, I returned to Puerto Viejo. And as happy as I am to be here, it tastes bittersweet.
It tastes bittersweet for the same reason it always tastes bittersweet.
My Puerto Viejo mistake.
I doubt I’ve ever admitted this to even my best friend, but I think I fell in love with Puerto Viejo because I first fell in love with him.
It’s hard to remember what that was like. These days I plan my visits around when I know he won’t be here. When I know I won’t run into him on the street or have to dodge his gaze from across the bar or wonder if he’ll ignore me, hit on me, or hit on one of my friends. When I won’t have to worry about how I look every time I walk out the door because I want him to suffer over how amazing I am.
But sometimes we’re both here at the same time. And every single time it’s hard.
I avoid the bars like the plague, knowing I’ll run into him. I feel compelled to go to the bars, knowing I’ll run into him. When I am at the bars I feel unable to enjoy or relax because I’m wondering if I will run into him.
And this time, it’s even harder. Because after what happened in Cambodia, I’m pretty sure he hates me.
I wish that I didn’t care. I wish that after more than two years I could just get over it. I wish that I could let it go and be light. But when I see him I still feel so many things.
I feel stunned that I get the same butterflies that I felt the first night we met. I feel hurt that he never fell for me as fully as I fell for him. I feel angry that by deceiving me he destroyed my faith in men and relationships. I feel naïve that I ever trusted him. I feel disgusted that he continues to do to other women what he did to me. I feel embarrassed that despite how much I hate him I still want him. I feel confused that on some level, I love him. I feel pathetic that I give such power to someone who I doubt even thinks about me at all.
These feelings I have towards him influence my attitude toward every man in this town.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen them treat women with as much consideration as a dog might offer a bush. To me they are liars, cheaters, and losers, spreading their seed across every Western country on the globe without ever leaving home. To put it bluntly, I think they’re scum. I don’t conceal this sentiment well.
But today, something shifted.
This morning our house lost all power because the gardeners accidentally tore the wires down while doing yardwork. This type of thing happens quite often in Costa Rica. I knew it would take at least a day to fix, so I walked down to the main road to have breakfast and the use the wifi at a nearby café. I found myself simultaneously disinterested in eating at this café and deeply compelled to go. I was unsure why, but I decided to follow the mystery.
Sure enough the café had power, but their wifi was not working. I guess I wouldn’t be working either. Pura vida. What was it that compelled me to come here I wondered.
Soon after I arrived my friend Thomas, an expat from the states, popped in to refill his coffee. His car was still running and his companion, a local man I had never met before, went to use the restroom. Thomas and I started chatting and when his friend emerged, he introduced us. The man’s name was Erik, a land developer born and raised in the South Caribbean.
I asked what they were up to and the next thing I knew we were entrenched in conversation. This is one reason why it’s so difficult to ever get any work done in Puerto Viejo. The car had been running long enough that Thomas went to turn off the engine. We discussed development and sustainable tourism, the interactions between tourists and locals, and finally we landed on my touchiest subject: the men in Puerto Viejo.
I spoke candidly on how they manipulate women into falling in love with them. I’ve witnessed tourist chasing all over the world, from Morocco to Cambodia to Panama to Indonesia, but in Puerto Viejo, it’s on another level.
I’m not the only one who recognizes this.
Anthropology Professor at the University of Manitoba, Susan Frohlik, has written at length on the pattern of European and North American women relocating to Puerto Viejo after falling in love with local men. In her research, these women describe feeling trapped in their addictive relationships with unfaithful, controlling men, even impoverishing themselves by choosing to stay. I’ve witnessed and heard this story in Puerto Viejo so many times.
Erik posed a question, “Have you considered that perhaps these men are actually the victims? That the women come here to use them?”
I had of course considered it.
In Frohlik’s research she not only examines the impact of the local men on the tourists, but also the effects of tourism on the local men. Due to the influx in foreigners from all over the world, locals have been confronted with varying expressions of sexuality at an extremely young age, despite their traditional Catholic education and moral code. Women walk around in next to nothing, couples make out openly in bars, and I even heard two Australian girls say that they came to Puerto Viejo to get “stretched out.” Ew.
Perhaps Puerto Viejo is for Western women what Chiang Mai is for Western men. A place to receive validation from the attention and affection of someone far better looking than you think you deserve. The Caribbean Latinos prostitute themselves for a long weekend with deep-pocketed blondes like the stiletto wearing Thai Ladyboys hang on the arms of balding men.
While I have heard rumors of men having sex with tourists and then robbing them, more commonly I witness men allowing their wives and girlfriends to financially support them. And to be fair, typically I see the Afro Caribbean men in relationships with young, beautiful, intelligent, women. So the stereotypical Caribbean Latino prostitute is, in my experience, a less common occurrence in Puerto Viejo than the smooth talking Lothario who can get any woman he wants to do whatever he wants.
When I first arrived in Puerto Viejo, I was warned about this. But the guy I fell for seemed so different. He owned a business, had traveled, and spoke three languages fluently. He treated me to dinner, gave me rides in his car, and brought gifts to my house. One night, after spending all of his cash out at the bar, he refused to let me pay $2 for street food, insisting on returning home and getting more cash first. “I’m not like these guys who let a woman pay for them,” he said.
Furthermore I hardly identified with the profile of a woman heading to the Caribbean for sex. Fresh out of an extremely challenging relationship romance was the last thing on my mind. In fact my relationship with this man was more emotional than physical. We spent more time in a hammock deep in conversation than we did in bed deep in passion. For my first weeks in Puerto Viejo, he was my best friend.
Erik raised another possibility, “Maybe the men have had their hearts broken too. Maybe they fall in love with women who leave and never come back.”
Again, this idea was hardly novel to me. Many times I’ve spoken with women who believe that the hot and cold behavior of the men here comes from a fear of rejection. They never want to get attached because they know that everyone always leaves. Though that sounded more like something you’d see romanticized in an American Rom Com than a cultural reality. I wasn’t convinced.
I recall sitting on the beach in Punta Uva with my hot and cold man, the day before I left him behind for Panama, listening to him tell me that he had never been in love. He said that he had no desire to ever fall in love. He went so far as to say that the moment he started to feel “too much” for a girl he cut things off. When I asked him why, he responded with simply, “I just don’t want to. I’ve seen my parents. I’ve seen how it is.”
Over the weeks proceeding he demonstrated this aversion in other ways. One minute he doted on me, the next he pulled away from me. He said things overwhelmingly committal then wouldn’t even commit to lunch. Even after I discovered he had an ex wife, two daughters, and a serious girlfriend, he still insisted that he had never been in love. But being afraid of getting hurt? I’m sorry but to me that seemed like such a line. I couldn’t buy into any of it.
Sensing my apprehension, Erik told me a story.
About a girl he met years ago when he was young and still in University. Back then not many local girls lived in Puerto Viejo so it was common for men to exclusively date tourists. She was from Switzerland and they spent every day together in Puerto Viejo for six months. He fell crazy in love with her. Then, the time came, as it always does in Puerto Viejo, for her to leave. She had to finish her studies back in Switzerland, but she promised that she would come back and they would get married. But she never did come back. Most girls never came back.
“Going through that over and over again, why would these guys ever want to fall in love?” he asked.
Late for their meeting, Thomas and Erik grabbed their coffees, said goodbye, and went on their way, leaving me inexplicably affected by something so simple.
Hearing a genuine, firsthand, heartfelt account of emotional abandonment from a local man opened something within me. If this guy who had no agenda could confirm the truth in the words “I’m scared that I will get hurt because everyone always leaves,” why couldn’t I?
I paid my bill, packed up my belongings and headed to the place where I knew I could ponder. I went to be alone on the beach.
Sitting under the protection of an almond tree, I considered how for so long I’ve painted the man who I fell for in Puerto Viejo as my villain. I knew nothing of his life or his truth and by his deceit I became the victim. But what if, even just for a moment, I considered a reality different from that?
When I met him I told him that I didn’t want to get attached. I told him that I was leaving in a few weeks and didn’t plan to come back. I was fighting my own battle of allowing myself to be light and just have fun. Maybe I was looking for a fling and that’s what I invited into my life. Maybe I did feel validation that someone as attractive as him was interested in me. Maybe in the beginning, that’s all it was.
When it ended, I blamed him for making me want more. I blamed him for spending time with me, for being kind to me, for wanting to know me. I blamed him for not openly behaving like I was nothing more than a tourist fling. I blamed him for acting like he liked me.
But maybe he actually did.
Maybe despite all of the lies, and everything he concealed, he actually meant everything he said. Maybe he actually cared. Maybe he didn’t intend to fall for me, just like I didn’t intend to fall for him. And when I left, maybe he actually hurt.
Maybe he didn’t tell me about the inconvenient details of his life because he wanted to keep me and he was scared of losing me. Maybe he didn’t tell me because he didn’t think it mattered considering the impermanence of our relationship. Maybe he felt justified in being unfaithful to his girlfriend, the mother of his child, because he felt hurt and abandoned by her. She left too, maybe to do what she thought best for herself and her daughter. Maybe this is how he responded, however selfishly, to his pain.
Maybe I’ve felt validated in my anger and blame because of my cultural programming that inherently victimizes women and villainizes men. That automatically puts the adulterer into the box of wrong, I’m consistently told that I did nothing wrong and that he did everything wrong. But what if there was no wrong?
Maybe both of us were doing the best that we could with where we were and what we had. Maybe there’s more than white or black. Maybe there’s many shades of black.
Maybe he has wounds and scars from life just like I do, just like you do. Maybe his feelings are just as deep and sincere as mine no matter the appearance of the layers of protection that he wears.
And maybe it’s none of that. Maybe the why doesn’t even matter. Maybe I can simply decide what treatment I’m willing to accept from someone without judging him for not adhering to it. Maybe no matter how inconsiderately he behaved he deserves as much happiness as every single being on Earth.
In life sometimes we will get hurt and sometimes we will hurt others, and it doesn’t make us villains or victims. It makes us human. Maybe each of us is always doing the best that we can with who we are and what we have.
I can continue to attach to a story that validates my anger and pain or can I choose something different. I can choose kindness. I can choose understanding. I can choose compassion. I can choose acceptance. I can choose release.
As I lifted myself up off the sand and began to weave the jungle path home I heard myself say the words “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry for blaming you for all of my hurt and my pain.” “I’m sorry for blaming you instead of loving you.” “I’m sorry.” I said these words in my heart to every man who has ever touched me, hurt me, loved me.
Then I turned back and looked at myself. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry for blaming you for all of my hurt and pain.” “I’m sorry for blaming you instead of loving you.” “I’m sorry,” I said.
Read more of my posts on Costa Rica here.